Today on Teen Jazz, we have a very special guest. One that I’ve had the honor of performing and recording with, and this is actually his second interview with us at Teen Jazz. He’s done quite a bit since the last interview, so we wanted to catch up with him.
Our guest, Chieli Minucci, is an established guitarist in New York. He has been renowned for both his skills as a diverse performer and as a Emmy award winning composer. With impressive credits and an extensive discography, Minucci has been successful in many genres of the music industry including performance, recording, composing for various artists, himself, musicals, et al. and much more.
So, welcome back Chieli! Thank you for taking the time to talk to us!
It’s a pleasure to be here, thank you Shannon.
When did you first begin seriously studying your instrument?
Well, I started as a piano player when I was a little kid, like 6. I took lessons and stuff and switched to guitar when I was, around 8. And in the beginning I didn’t study, but I did study guitar for about 3 years. I think I was about 10 or so when I started taking lessons and I’ve always been interested in music like a hobby since then, so later on in school, you know, I studied musical stuff – theory, solfeggio, arranging, writing, all kinds of stuff. I just really love the whole thing.
Your father was also a talented composer. Was he a big influence for you when you were getting started?
I think so. You know, just having music around the house – not just playing music – but, seeing somebody play it on the keyboard. My father was a pianist. I’m sure it had a big influence on me. It was great and he was writing music too. So there’s a whole idea of making up silly melodies and fun songs and I was into that really away.
That’s really cool. Can you tell us a little bit about some of your other influences?
Well, I mean, I’ve been influenced in music by many, many composers and performers and I’m mostly influenced by stuff outside of music. Because everything is related to everything, as you know. But mostly as a teenager, I think, probably we develop our personalities, mostly. And during those years I liked a lot of progressive rock music coming out of England at the time so probably the biggest influence for me was the Beatles when I was a kid but I got into music that was a little bit more composition-oriented. Groups like Genesis and even started to listen to some so-called jazz fusion music in my late teens. But I would say that I really didn’t discover jazz music in a personal way until I was in college. Mostly what I liked before that was just blues based guitar stuff like Johnny Winter, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, you know, the guys that were taking over the world at the time. I loved all of them.
That’s really cool and you can hear a lot of those early influences in your music. You’ve found a really unique way to really fuse those with what you’re doing with Special EFX and your solo recordings as well.
I think the only kind of concept that I had when I started Special EFX with my partner was that we wanted the energy to be high but we wanted to stay away from distorted electric guitars so I made a deliberate decision to go more into acoustic guitar sounds since the early days of the group. I mean, that’s evolved since then because many years have passed. But in the beginning, if you listen, if people listen to the first few records that we did, the emphasis is not on guitar hero kind of playing at all. It’s more on group sounds and that kind of thing. More arrangement, more band-oriented, not one guy standing out. Everyone was kind of equal as far as the sound of the group went. An acoustic guitar can bring a different feeling to a song, for some, it may give more of a ‘connection’ which is why many will start out playing acoustic guitar so they can learn. If anyone out there does want to start, they can read more about different acoustic guitars that they can get to make their own unique, but influenced, sound.
So since we started about Special EFX. Let’s talk about some of the current projects you’re working on. Special EFX is celebrating it’s 30th anniversary with the release of Genesis?
Yeah. Yeah, this year is really 30 years since we did our first live shows and actually a little more than that. And we put out the CD Genesis on my old record label, Shanachie. It’s just brand new, so it just got going. And I’m really looking forward to seeing how it all goes with it. Actually most of the live performance stuff that’s supposed to follow up is just starting.
I’d love to talk about the new album, but can you first tell us a little bit about how Special EFX got started?
Sure. The group that started actually, it’s Special EFX for those that don’t really know us too well was two people. And with George Jinda who was the percussionist came from Budapest Hungary, and he’s sadly no longer around. He’s been gone for over 10 years now. For the group, the group is me with a band and the band is Lionel Cordew, Jerry Brooks, Jay Rowe and various other people that come and go. But the core members of the band are those guys and they’ve been doing it for a long time and it’s been really great.
As Special EFX, I think Genesis makes 20 albums?
Yeah, something like that. 18 I think. There were a couple of records that were put out, you know like the “The Best of Special EFX” that didn’t have new material on it, but were new releases.
Well, either way, you’re quite the prodigious recording artist.
Yeah, I’ve been around. I like to write. I tell a lot of people that I can, for every 20 songs there are pieces of music I like, there’s maybe one that’s sort of good. I hope. There’s been a couple of tunes along the way that people have really enjoyed and that’s great.
And Genesis came out on, was it May 21st?
Uh yeah, I think that’s date.
You team up with a few members from another project that you’ve been a part of for the last few years with Lao Tizer and Karen Briggs…
Yes. As a matter of fact, I just did a show with Lao the night before last. Yeah I play in the band with Lao and I helped him make his records. I write with him also. But, you know, I’m just sort of a guest star in his group which is really nice. I met him when he was young and now he has like seven or eight records out.
So you do the Special EFX group and you perform with a bunch of other artists and you’re really well established in the smooth jazz genre, but in addition to that you also have toured and recorded with pop artists like Jewel and Celine Dion and you’ve won Emmy’s for The Guiding Light and Dora the Explorer. So how do you balance all these different things that you do? Because they’re, you know, really diverse.
Well, thank you, yeah. Well, what you do is you take things one at a time as they come. They’re not all happening at the same time. The way that it’s worked for me is I had a period in my career where I met a record producer in New York named Ric Wake. And Ric was the producer for Celine Dion, Mark Anthony and Jewel, Anastasia. He did a lot of pop and rock artists and he brought me in to guitar work on a lot of these projects which was really great. I haven’t worked with him for a few years, but I did have those few years in particular where he was calling a team of us. We were working on a lot of music. It had nothing to do with jazz, it was just purely recording.
And you know I should say this, a lot of musicians that people see performing have multiple sides to their career like that. They write. They produce. They perform. They write many kinds of music. A lot of times you’ll find that. Like for instance, right now, tonight I’m performing in New York City with a trio. It’s a very interesting trio. It’s drums, myself and a Chapman Stick Player Steve Adelson. And we’re going to play a couple of original songs from each of us and a couple of jazz standards also. It’s just the live aspect of playing music. Getting out there. That’s really what it’s all about. That’s the most important thing I think.
That’s where my hobby, my love for music came from is live concerts and you know, listening to people perform. I especially like to listen to jazz artists perform now when I go out. I like to hear people improvise and see what they can do, especially older style jazz I love. So my taste in music has evolved over time. I like a lot of kinds of music and so my records tend to be kind of eclectic. And I like to play different kinds of music too. Like right now one of the styles of music I’m digging into is more of a Gypsy Jazz style like Django Reinhardt and old school style which is a struggle for me because I didn’t grow up playing that. But it’s just part of the journey. We’re all on this kind of musical journey together, right? I mean, you too.
Yeah definitely. So what gave you, or who or what gave you the confidence to really pursue music as a career?
I don’t really know if I had confidence. I told a couple of friends of mine I’m good at rowing the boat but I’m not too good at steering it. I’m surrounded by people who just show up and do it. So that’s a good spirit to have. Having confidence to do it… Confidence comes and goes. That’s just one of those psychological terms, I think. It’s what I’m familiar with though. I’ve been playing and practicing guitar for many, many years, so I’m willing to give it a shot.
Oh, yeah. I definitely think we can all relate a little bit to that. So why don’t you talk a little bit about what inspires you to continue doing music?
That’s a good question. Well, I guess part of it is that it’s what I know and love. And I can see that there’s a whole wide world that hasn’t been touched by me and I want to dip into. I like the kind of people meet in music a lot. I like artists. I like people who write and are creative and who travel. So I think we’re all like-minded. I also meet those kind of people who are not musicians. So it’s not delegated to only music. I mean, they’re a lot of interesting people in other fields, but I generally find that there’s just something unusual about people in the music business and I like that. I just love playing music. I just love listening to and playing music.
And that’s really important to have that love of music because that’s what really keeps you going. If you’re looking for something else like money or fame, that’s small picture. That’s not big picture but having that drive and that passion to to pursue music is really important.
Have you, just because, you know, our audience is younger musicians and sometimes they get frustrated with practice or they’re not seeing enough progress… So, have you ever had an experience where maybe you felt giving and what got you through that?
Yeah, I still have that happen on occasion. I mean, like, not completely giving up but on a small scale, sometimes I’m practicing music but I just don’t feel like I want to practice. Or if I just don’t feel like I’m in the mood for it. But I need to get it done because I need to memorize a piece for instance, or maybe I’m working… Like tonight, for instance, I have to play a piece… It’s a Wes Montgomery guitar piece that I haven’t really learned it that well yet, but I’ve been working on it the last couple of weeks just so I could get really familiar with it so I can flow. But I don’t really always want to play it when I’m rehearsing at home. I like to get together and play it with the band, but that will happen on stage tonight.
Sometimes I don’t get discouraged with music per say, I get discouraged with the business of music. That’s a whole nother subject of course, but it’s one thing to love music and travel and write and all of this, but there’s an element of business involved that keeps that machine going also. And it’s a group effort. It’s a team effort. And you know, it’s like anything else. It takes a lot of pushing and encouragement to keep everybody motivated to keep the whole thing going. So sometimes I lean on people, you know, if I don’t feel I’m playing enough shows with Special EFX, I’ll call up other people and say, “listen, I’ve got a lot of time on my hands. If you want to work on something, let me know.”
Then I get motivated by being bored, I guess. I don’t wanna, like you know, last year I think I did about 50 shows, all kinds of different shows and that to me was very satisfying. There were points where I needed to take a break, that’s how busy I got.
It’s always better to be busy than not.
Yeah, yeah. You know, I get in trouble if I’m not busy.
So what are some of your goals musically for the future.
I have two that I’m working on. One of them has been an ongoing goal. I’ve touched it a little bit. I like to write music for pictures. And I’ve been working with a music production library and we’ve been writing music for subjects. Like for instance, writing music for country-style or latin or electronic music and it’s commercial. In other words, it’s supposed to be composed for usage in commercial use or in a movie, but what I’d like to really is to do more actual film work. You know, write to picture. Short-film, long-film, independent film. I feel like I’m really overdue to do more of that. I’ve done a little bit of that.
And the other thing that I’m working on is developing a big music program in China. I know that comes out of left field, but I’ve gone over there five times in the last year and a half and I’m trying to help develop in Shanghai, like a music production situation. Like help open up a studio and run it and get people educated in there and do music production and do television music production. And just get this whole thing going if I can help. So I’m going back there in October to do a tour and at the end of the tour I’m going to meet with people who are financing the project and see if we’re gonna go to the next phase which would actually be building a recording studio in Shanghai.
That’s really amazing. How did that get started?
A long flight. It got started because of a woman over there who is a singer who is acting as my agent over there. And she got me over there and then I started meeting people because that’s what happens when you travel. So some of the big plans that I have over, to do the studio, came from other people that I met. But the touring is come from the singer. Actually she’s the singer on the new CD. Her name is Xu Feiyu and she’s on the song called “Mirage” and the song called “Wishing.” And yeah, she’s a really great singer and a wonderful person and we’ve done a couple of concerts together with Special EFX even, and it’s been really great. There’s a lot of stuff going on.
I think the important thing is, you know, it doesn’t really matter what age you’re at, or where you’re at in your career, it’s all part of the whole story. I mean, when I was in my early 20s and we were just getting Special EFX started, there was a lot of stress trying to book gigs and play shows and practice. Same thing now. Like the evolution of your life. What was that song… You know I just heard that band, Tears for Fears. I heard Everyone wants to Rule the World on the radio and there’s a great line in there, a great lyric. “Welcome to your life, there’s no turning back.” Right? It just says it all. You know, whatever you want to do, this is America. You can just push forward and give your best shot. Because there’s opportunities out there as long as you’re willing to take the action.
So what would your advice be for an up and coming musician?
The same advice I would give to an established player. It’s the most important to perform live in front of an audience not only rehearsals to mingle with other people as one of the things you do. Of course practicing, learning, studying is good. But to get to play with other people is extremely important. That’s what makes it most fun also. So, you know, that’s it. It’s a combination of that and practice. And I would say that any time I’ve had a guitar student, I’ve told them that it’s not just about learning how to play the instrument, but commingling with other musicians also.
It depends on what somebody wants to do. Like, for instance, Shannon, if you want to be, like you wanted to play on tour with Paul McCartney, the best thing you could do is to just practice. To perform, be seen by people and maybe somebody will say “hey, you’re a great player, I have a job for you” or “I have a project for you that you might like, that you might be good for.” And that’s it. It’s what they call networking, right? But you’ve got to also know your stuff. It’s important to practice and take lessons if possible, or if you don’t take lessons practice and work with other people and learn and be open minded and try to have some diversification in the way that you play.
You know, I mean, I don’t think that I’m a great straight ahead jazz player, but I’ll try my best. I’ll jump in there with those guys and play. I’m not a very good judge of my own playing, so I just show up and play. But the thing is, if I say “no, I won’t do it,” then I’m never going to learn. So it’s important to just try things and say yes and if somebody says “hey, can you play country music on your saxophone…” of course I can! So you just get over there and learn on the spot in front of them. Who cares? That’s how you learn. It’s like jumping in the swimming pool. You’ve gotta learn to swim or you don’t.
That’s true. Say yes and figure out how to do it later.
Yeah, that’s important and you can always ask people to help you if you’re not sure what you’re doing, but you’ll never find out if you don’t jump in with both feet. That’s the important thing, so.
Yeah… Well, thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to the interview with us.
Yeah, yeah it was great. Great to talk to you. I think we’re going to try to do something in Southern California probably in the spring. We’re working on putting together a run of shows, so I hope I get to see you then Shannon. Okay, let’s keep in touch.
That’d be great. Thanks Chieli.
Have a great day.
So that was our interview with Chieli Minucci. Thank you so much again Chieli for being on the show with us. If you’re interested in learning more about him and his music, you can visit chielimusic.com. We hope you enjoyed the show. You can visit teenjazz.com or teenjazzradio.com to learn more about us or check out some of the other interviews and podcasts that we’ve done in the past. Thank you so much for tuning in.